Modern-day rugby league’s greatest grudge match is set to explode again on Sunday when arch-foes Manly defend their Brookvale fortress against resurgent Parramatta.
Both sides are coming off morale-boosting wins, the premiers having stormed over the top of the Broncos 22-20 at Suncorp Stadium last week after trailing 16-0, the Eels dominating the Cowboys 28-18 at home the week before they rested up with the bye.
Manly’s Jamie Lyon led the Sea Eagles’ breathtaking recovery last week, scoring three tries after announcing he wants to be considered for State of Origin selection. Given his current form that would seem to be a given.
Meanwhile the Eels’ fullback Jarryd Hayne went from an extreme outsider in Origin discussions to the likely first winger picked following his barnstorming effort against the Cowboys.
Manly’s victory was their first for the season without star fullback Brett Stewart and that fact alone has given them huge confidence when they need it most. After an abysmal start to their premiership defence (four opening losses) they’ve now won three of their past five to sit in 13th spot – just one rung behind the Eels whose win over the Cowboys was their first for five weeks.
It’s a big game for grand final hero Matt Ballin who plays his 50th game in the maroon and white.
Watch out Sea Eagles: You could make the argument that no team works harder together to get across the white line than the Eels. To date they’ve scored 21 tries – not great by comparison with other teams – but 18 have been scored with an assist by a team-mate. With just three others scored it becomes obvious the key to success against the Eels is shutting down their creative nucleus of Hayne and Feleti Mateo.
Surprisingly, the side is middle of the road for offloads this year (104, compared to Manly’s 116), but they are obviously making the most of their chances. This includes long-range efforts – the Eels have scored almost 25 per cent of their points from their own side of halfway (five tries) – something the Sea Eagles’ defence will need to be mindful of.
Watch out Eels: Jamie Lyon has a new lease on life since his permanent shift to the centres this year. Chris Bailey making a fist of the no.6 jersey has allowed Lyon some creative freedom out wide and he’s topping the try-scorer’s list (eight) as a result. His stats against the Broncos were awesome – 22 touches, five tackle breaks, three tries, a line break and 25 tackles.
The worrying thing for Daniel Anderson is Lyon is everything his star game-breaker Jarryd Hayne is, and more: unpredictable and nearly impossible to coach against given space.
Where it will be won: Which side is the more confident? Who has the greater self-belief? Both teams are confidence sides who generally kick on to bigger and better things when boosted by good performances.
Given the scope of their North Queensland victory, achieved without the suspended workhorse Nathan Hindmarsh, the Eels will still be on a massive high even allowing for the week off with the bye.
Further, the break will have given their forwards time to overcome some minor injury niggles – while the likes of Manly’s Lyon, David Williams, Brent Kite, Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart may be starting to feel the pinch due to their large workloads over the past fortnight.
The History: Played 121; Sea Eagles 75, Eels 42, drawn 4. The Sea Eagles have won five of the past eight games, including the past four. The Sea Eagles have a better than 2:1 ratio of winning games between these two sides at home.
Conclusion: Defence will play a crucial role in the outcome to this clash. The Sea Eagles’ comeback against the Broncos last week was awesome, but they did it against a Broncos side that is ranked the worst in the NRL for missed tackles in 2009. The Broncos let the visitors back into the contest because they missed 52 tackles – worryingly for Des Hasler that’s exactly how many the Manly side missed too (Matt Orford 11, Glenn Stewart and Steve Matai six each, Anthony Watmough four).
Hasler knows that if they drop off the Eels, they’ll be made to pay.
Still, if they can get on the scoreboard early, and with a packed and vocal Brookvale crowd urging them on, they may just produce something special. They’re the favourites… but you wouldn’t want to put your house on them.
Match officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.